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How Rugged Individualism Tripped Me Up

And How This Belief Gets in the Way of Effective Teams

What good fortune! I had a client meeting very near one of my favorite state parks, one with amazing hiking trails. I rearranged my schedule to allow 2 hours of hiking time and set off. Alone

It was a beautiful spring day. It was warm, but not too hot. Trees were greening and I found my fair share of wildflowers. I had chosen the trails I would take over breakfast, primarily based on length and proximity to my car. I am both a decent hiker and not terribly afraid of being alone, so striking off by myself gave me no pause.

The first part of the trail was level and easy. The trail descended and I made a note to myself that it would be a rigorous hike out. All was going as planned until I got to the intersection of two trails and I found myself a bit puzzled about my location. None the less, I adjusted my route and started on trail 3. It was clear that it had not been traversed much. There were large sections of trail washed out, requiring going across deep and muddy ravines. The trail thinned even more and became harder and harder to pick out. 

And then I came upon a ravine that I would need to go down and climb back up out of. It was muddy. It was steep and long on both sides. It looked treacherous.

I hesitated. I considered turning around and going back. That way was known but was not easy and might put me in danger of being late to my client meeting. I considered the option of pressing forward into the unknown, hoping that I could safely pass through this challenge and that there were not even more daunting ones ahead.

It was at this moment that I dreadfully wanted my typical hiking partners. I so needed my husband, who would calmly look at the map, discern where we really were, and chart the way forward. I wanted the voice of my daughter, who would assess the situation and in her no-nonsense way, paint the options and point us to the best one. And I longed for my grandchildren, who would have seen sliding down this slippery ravine and then crawling up the other muddy side as a great adventure. 

Which got me to this clear lesson:

The critical flaw in rugged individualism is that you are limited by your own skills, abilities, and ways of processing information. There is no one to bounce ideas around to test them. There is no one who looks at the world differently than you and in ways that add value. There is no one that has had valuable experiences that you have not to draw from. There is no one to challenge your thinking, present alternatives, calm you down or get you moving.

My mind shifted to all those I work with and how, by working together, we are better. I think of Joe, who always gets us grounded in WHY we are doing something. I think of Brian, who listens intently and organizes long, rambling conversations into orderly lists and options. I think of Katie who sees things with fresh eyes and finds new ways around sticky situations. I think of Val who can move us forward when we’re stuck and encourages us to get on with it. And I could go on and on and on – for I’m blessed to work with so many talented professionals.

Here’s the thing though. For us to get the value from the skills, talents, experiences, and perspectives others bring, we need to shift our mindset:

  • From valuing rugged individualism to honoring collective wisdom
  • From fiercely defending our positions to being curious and entertaining other possibilities
  • From insisting that others do it “our way” to welcoming “their way”
  • From landing on the very first idea to exploring options and making choices

Rugged individualism would have worked for me on my hike had I been on well-marked, well maintained even terrain. It is the same at work. If the way is clear and easy, go alone. But increasingly the path is obscure, untraveled, and untested. This provides even more reason to bring together diverse people: doers and thinkers, feelers and data driven folks, right and left brained, and people with varied functional expertise and varied life experiences. 

You may be wondering how my hike ended…so here is the end of the story. I chose to go forward into the unknown. I slid (on my butt) down the muddy ravine and crawled (on my hands and knees) up the muddy ascent. I finally lost the trail altogether and dropped down to the creek, which I followed out to safety. An adventure for sure! And perhaps more perceived than real danger as I did have a map (which has warned me that Trail 3 was rugged) and a cell phone with coverage. I made it back to get showered and ready for my appointment. And I came out with a renewed appreciation of why having a group of really smart (in many different ways) people around you is a really good thing.

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